I grew up on beaches. When I was a kid my father took us to Ocean City and Atlantic City in the summer. Then we moved to Florida. As a teenager in the 60’s I spent a lot of my free time at Cocoa Beach, New Smyrna and Daytona beaches. I thought I knew a few things about beaches.
At the beginning of this year, I took my wife to France for our 20th anniversary. I love Scotland. She loves France. We’ve been to Scotland a lot, so I figured I owed her. That’s why I took her to France.
Paris was great. Loved it. But I really wanted to go to Normandy and see the beaches where the soldiers of America, Britain and Canada came ashore in 1944. I was surprisingly unprepared for the emotional wave that enveloped me.
My dad was an American GI, my mother was an English girl. They hooked up early in 1944 in England and managed to marry just before he was shipped out to France as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force in 1944. He was a member of that great US Army awaiting orders to invade France and begin the march to Germany. He didn’t land on D-Day. My Dad was a supply sergeant who came ashore three weeks after the infantry made their landings on the beaches of Normandy. I always knew that my dad was not infantry, and was not a war hero. He was a supply guy, who later became a prison guard, forced into that job because of all the German soldiers who surrendered in such large numbers as they sought a way out of the war. But still, he landed on the beaches of Normandy, and I had a chance to go there and see where he and the real heroes of World War II made history.
January is winter in France. Cold, misty and wet. It was just that kind of day when we went to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. I thought we might have a walk through the Cemetery, read some of the grave stones, tip our hats, and then go drink some nice red wine. What I wasn’t prepared for was the Memorial. It is magnificent in its simplicity. As we walked through the Memorial, I was overcome with the stories of the men who saved the world in 1944. They were so young. They mixed fear with the excitement of what they were about to do. It was powerful to read the words of General Eisenhower as he met one last time with his troops before the invasion. We spent three hours in there, and I thought we’d been gone for about 30 minutes. The films and the stories of the men who were the heroes are quite simply, stunning. They say when you die young you are forever frozen in time at that age. Certainly this is true as you learn about the lives of the men who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. It was quite an emotional experience. Then we walked out of the memorial onto the grounds of the cemetery. Nine thousand Americans are buried here. Reading the gravestones is like reading a phone book of America. What a collection of men and boys died to liberate France and the world from the darkest forces imaginable.
After we read several headstones, I wanted to walk down to the beach. It’s an easy walk down, and all the while you are walking down you are imagining what the American soldiers are thinking as they are trying to climb up under intense enemy fire. Omaha Beach is a small, but nice beach. It’s a deep sandy beach at low tide, bookended by steep hills at each end. You can imagine the French people coming here in the summer, just as I used to go to beaches for sun and fun. But your mind flashes back to those opening scenes in Saving Private Ryan, and you are walking just by the water thinking of that generation of young American soldiers trying to hit this beach and fight their way up. I picked up a small rock, washed ashore from the English Channel. Silly, but I somehow felt it connected me to those men and my Dad.
One of the great failures of American foreign policy is that cigar smokers cannot buy Cuban cigars. Well in France you can. So I bought one and I saved it for this moment. I climbed back up the beach and I sat on the edge of a monument overlooking a concrete German pillbox, which no doubt was home to a machine gun that killed a lot of Americans landing on that beach. I smoked that cigar, and I thought about what happened here. They say as men get older they become more emotional. If you doubt that, go to Omaha Beach.